Plastic pollution in our seas is a global threat that damages marine ecosystems, harms and kills marine animals, and is poised to affect human health. Plastic production has been on the rise since the 1950s and today 75-80 million tons of plastic are used to produce the world’s food packaging alone for one year (Andrady 2011 ). Some of this plastic has inevitably found its way into the ocean.
The very attributes that make plastic so useful to humans — its durability, light weight and lack of decomposition — are huge liabilities for the oceans and ocean life. Polymers persist for decades, perhaps even hundreds of years, and 30 percent of plastic is able to float. This combination contributes to a staggering accumulation of plastic in our oceans.
Most marine litter comes from trash and debris in urban runoff — almost 80% of garbage in the oceans comes from land-based sources (Gordon 2011). The majority of this solid waste is made up of food containers and packaging. In the United States in 2009, food packaging made up 29.5% of municipal solid waste (Wabnitz and Nichols 2010). While plastic production has skyrocketed since the 1970s, recovery barely makes a dent in the hundreds of billions of pounds of plastic produced each year.
So how does this plastic wind up in the ocean? And what happens to it once it gets there?
In 1992 the EPA found that a majority of beaches around the world had some accumulation of plastic material, such as plastic pellets (from leaking shipping and train containers), plastic drums, polystyrene packaging, polyurethane foam pieces, fishing lines and nets, pens, lighters, tires, toothbrushes, and plastic bags. All of these materials are still showing up on shores worldwide, and in increased amounts.
Ocean currents often push trash into remote areas, so even isolated beaches wind up covered in plastic bottles and old fishing equipment. The debris comes from all over the world — it’s not uncommon to find bottles with Chinese and Korean labels washed up on Hawaiian shores. But some of these plastics stay in the water indefinitely (Kostigen 2008).
The Great Pacific Garbage Patch
The North Pacific Gyre, an area of the Pacific Ocean also known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, contains an estimated 150 million tons of plastic. It covers an area estimated to be about twice the size of the United States and it extends at least 100 feet deep, possibly deeper.
The Pacific Garbage Patch has been described as “plastic soup” and is made up of abandoned fishing nets, bottles, packaging, and microscopic bits of plastic. Some of this debris floats at the surface, while heavier items sink to the bottom — trash can be found throughout the water column.
Captain Charles Moore discovered this patch in 1997, and now spends his time studying the Pacific Garbage Patch and trying to reduce marine plastic pollution. A recent study by the Algalita Marine Research Foundation found that plastic debris in the Gyre outnumbered zooplankton 6 to 1, and was on the rise (Kostigen 2008).
Similar garbage patches exist in the rest of the world’s oceans at gyres where currents have pushed large amounts of marine debris together.
A 2009 report by the United Nations Environment Program found that through stress from the sun and the waves caused plastic materials to break down into miniscule pieces that the organisms at the base of the food web could consume. This explains why, according to some reports, a majority of all marine mammals and sea birds have some amount of plastic in their digestive systems.
Plastics and Marine Wildlife
Plastics have a huge impact on marine wildlife. A 2010 study found plastic in birds’ nests, used instead of shells by hermit crabs, and in the stomachs of everything from sea turtles to whales to albatross (Wabnitz and Nichols 2010).
If its harmful effects on the ocean and marine life weren’t enough, plastic pollution may pose a serious threat to human health. Plastic can absorb toxic non-water-soluble chemicals at extreme levels. Poisons such as POPs (persistent organic pollutants, like DDT and PCBs) and other oily pollutants are absorbed and concentrated by the plastic debris encircling our globe.
Once these fragments of plastic break down to into tiny pieces, some marine organisms mistake the debris as food, and toxins can be released into their living membranes. As a result, these contaminants may be passed up the food web, potentially winding up on our dinner plates. The debris that we put into the water may just come back where we least expect it.
To learn more about plastic pollution in the world’s oceans, check out the following organizations:
- Plastic Pollution Coalition: The coalition, which is made up of hundreds of organizations, seeks to reduce the world’s dependence on plastic products through education. They hosted a series of TEDx Talks about plastic pollution and the Pacific Garbage Patch.
- Plastic Oceans Foundation: Dedicated to raising awareness of marine plastic pollution through film and media, the Plastic Oceans Foundation emphasizes the interaction between humans and the ocean. They are a partner of the Plastic Pollution Coalition.
- 5 Gyres: To understand the impact of marine plastic pollution, 5 Gyres leads exploratory missions to all five subtropical gyres, the locations where ocean currents push debris into large patches. This organization works with Pangaea Explorations and Algalita Marine Research Foundation to learn more about these garbage patches and communicate their global impact and advocate for effective solutions.
- Algalita Marine Research Foundation: One of the sponsors of 5 Gyres, Algalita Marine Research was founded by Captain Charles Moore, who discovered the Pacific Garbage Patch. This foundation is dedicated to studying and mapping the garbage patches around the world.
- Plastic Debris Rivers to Sea: This California-based project is working to assess and reduce sources of trash in urban runoff. One of their main goals includes facilitating dialogue between government, industry, and community to address the sources of land-based debris in rivers leading to the Pacific Ocean.
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